BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Tuesday emphasized the importance of an air base near the Kyrgyz capital to the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan, underscoring the Obama administration’s hope that the United States might be able to retain access to the facility through the end of the Afghan war.
The current agreement with the Kyrgyz government, which was signed in 2009, calls for the United States to vacate the Manas transit center by July 2014.
Kyrgyzstan’s new president, Almazbek Atambayev, has said he intends to enforce that agreement, and Busurmankul Tabaldiev, secretary of the Kyrgyz Defense Council, reiterated that message in a meeting Tuesday evening with Panetta, saying that “there should be no military mission” at the airport after July 2014.
Tabaldiev indicated that Kyrgyzstan would be willing to support U.S.-linked commercial traffic after 2014. The United States relies heavily on the Manas base to ferry U.S. military personnel in and out of Afghanistan, including about 580,000 troops who moved through the facility last year. It also keeps Air Force tankers, which are used to refuel fighter jets and other planes over Afghanistan, there. Relatively little cargo moves through the base.
U.S. officials said that Panetta had come to Kyrgyzstan to convey his thanks to the government and not to negotiate an extension to the current agreement. “We are not going to negotiate anything,” said one U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “We are going to underscore the importance of the transit system to the U.S.”
U.S. officials have said, however, that they would like to retain access to the base throughout 2014 as U.S. troops and equipment are moved out of Afghanistan in accordance with the Obama administration’s planned drawdown there.
The U.S. government currently pays about $60 million a year for access to the facility, up from about $17.5 million in 2009. The base has been a source of controversy in this small, impoverished Central Asian nation. Former Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev was accused of using it to enrich himself and his family and was forced from power in 2010.
U.S. officials have made the argument to their Kyrgyz counterparts that success and stability in Afghanistan will curb drug production in that country, which remains a source of corruption and unrest throughout Central Asia.
“I would ask that you convey my thanks to the president for his continued support for the transit center at Manas,” Panetta told Kyrgyz officials at the outset of his meeting.
He also praised the country’s recent democratic elections.